These mayors want to fight Covid-19 and the recession with one big idea: A guaranteed income

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Mayors of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Stockton, and other cities want a federal cash program to support their residents in need.

By Dylan Matthews | | Jul 21, 2020, 10:00am EDT
Featured image: Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, California, spearheaded Mayors for Guaranteed Income, a coalition of 17 mayors who support implementing a federal guaranteed income. Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images

An impressively expansive coalition of mayors across the United States has united for a surprising goal: implementing a federal guaranteed income.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, announced in a Time opinion piece last month, is the brainchild of Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old chief executive of Stockton, California, a city of more than 300,000 about 90 minutes east of San Francisco.

Tubbs first encountered the idea of a guaranteed income as a Stanford undergrad when studying Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of the policy. A guaranteed income is an umbrella term for any policy meant to ensure that all citizens have a baseline level of money every year, guaranteed through government checks. For the last three years, Tubbs has been overseeing a pilot program offering 130 low-income Stockton residents $500 a month, no strings attached, to test one model of how this could work.

That effort, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), began distributing money in early 2019, and while there is no formal research published on it yet, they have so far seen promising results. The money isn’t “wasted” by recipients, as skeptics of a guaranteed income have argued, but is spent on necessities, with food being by far the biggest purchase category.

Tubbs has become a major evangelist for the idea. He told Vox that, after presenting the idea to the US Conference of Mayors in 2018, he was “surprised by how enthusiastic people were.” Then, after the Covid-19 pandemic set in, he found “mayors were hungry for something that met this moment: focusing on root causes, and in line with the spirit of FDR with the New Deal, or JFK and the New Frontier.”

So far, the 17 mayors who have joined Tubbs include prominent names like Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, Oakland’s Libby Schaaf, Newark, New Jersey’s Ras Baraka, and Jackson, Mississippi’s Chokwe Antar Lumumba. All are Democrats (as are most large-city mayors), but Tubbs says the group will become bipartisan “soon.”

The effort has also drawn attention from Silicon Valley philanthropy — Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey donated $3 million to the group as a launch gift.

The group’s purpose is both to advocate for guaranteed income as an idea and to support pilot programs of the idea in the cities of member mayors. Those pilots take up the bulk of the group’s budget and could provide valuable new evidence on the effects of cash transfers as well as build public awareness of the idea.

Schaaf of Oakland says she’s already talking with a “major national funder” about launching a pilot in her city. “What excites me about universal income is that … it will intersect with victims of structural racism,” Schaaf told Vox.

Her city has in the past offered one-time cash assistance to help with homelessness, she says, and while that’s been life-changing for some recipients, it’s not enough. “Limiting cash assistance to one-time has a disparate impact on people of color because racial discrimination is not one-time,” Schaaf said. She’s attracted to guaranteed income and universal basic income because of the policy’s regularity and because it leaves choices to the recipients, not the government. “Government cannot know each and every family’s unique circumstances. It’s disrespectful and inefficient for us to try to,” Schaaf said. “I call it ‘tweezer government.’”

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income’s emergence is the latest evidence to date that universal cash assistance is becoming a mainstream political proposal, not least due to the widespread economic deprivation caused by Covid-19. And Tubbs is clear that the ultimate goal is less the implementation of such policies in the cities they run and more to force guaranteed income onto the agenda of the federal government.

Guaranteed income vs. basic income

The terminology in the name “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income” is important.

“Guaranteed income” isn’t quite the same as another concept that has caught on in recent years: “universal basic income” (UBI), the idea that tech leaders and 2020 presidential contender Andrew Yang have popularized. UBI typically involves proposals that offer enough money for a basic subsistence living (like $1,000 per month, as in Yang’s plan) to every American (or at least every adult American), regardless of their other income.

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